Some gospel truths

Jesus&Roman

Imagine a new book is discovered that claims to answer all of our questions about life, promises hope for the future and provides remarkable insights into the nature of reality. You’d be interested, right? It wouldn’t even bother you that the book was the result of a series of hallucinations its writers claim to have had.

You don’t need to imagine this book because it already exists. It answers essential questions that we all have at some point like whether is life after death, and what’s waiting for us on the other side; what is the purpose of life, and how can we find happiness and peace now? Does God know us personally and hear our prayers? How can we avoid sin and learn to truly split infinitives repent. It’s called (wait for it) The Book Of Mormon and it purports to answer all the deep questions I’ve just mentioned – I know it does because I’ve just lifted them from mormon.org – and it is the result of the visions a ‘prophet’ called Joseph Smith had of one of the Lord’s angels back in the 1820s.

What? You don’t believe it? Why not? It’s the result of divine revelation and it answers all the questions you have – we are all supposed to have – about the meaning of life.

I’m guessing you don’t believe it because Joseph Smith has the reputation of being a bit of a fraud. His visions are implausible and inconsistently reported, while the book itself is fanciful and feels, well, fabricated; Jesus’ adventures in America after his resurrection just seem so made up.

No, I’m with you on this one, as is 99.93% of the Earth’s population. They don’t believe the Book Of Mormon either.

So how about a different book, a much older one? It too is said to answer all the serious questions about life and is also the result of visions and revelations. Okay, maybe it’s inconsistent, contradictory and fanciful. Maybe its more than a little improbable in places, but this book is different. Truly, it is. Everything in it, though  written, misremembered and altered by human beings is the very word of God; it says so itself so it must be true, and 2.2 billion people in the world can’t be wrong.

Or can they? Why is it that a book that relies even more than the Book of Mormon does  on innervisions and ‘revelations’ – the Bible – is held in such high esteem by so many? The New Testament alone records over twenty such hallucinations*, including the entirity of its final book. Some of these visions – those of the Risen Christ – serve as the foundation for the entire belief system.

Why are these ‘revelations’ regarded, by Christians at least, as real and trustworthy when those of the Book Of Mormon, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, and all those other ‘holy’ texts that owe their existence to hallucinations, are not? There is no substantive difference between them; no difference between one group of religious fanatics’ visions and those of all the other groups. None are demonstrably divine and all are essentially the same. That the Bible is older than the Book Of Mormon does not lend it more credence or affirm its ‘holy’ status. On the contrary, its production in a more credulous, pre-scientific era gives it less credibility, not more, and supplies greater reason not to sanctify or revere it.

So, Christians, what distinguishes the revelations of the Bible from those found in other ‘holy’ books? What makes its visions viable and real when the others, apparently, are not? What makes the Bible right and those wrong? It cannot be because the Bible says it’s inspired by God (in a letter known to be a forgery) because the others claim the same thing. Why are you prepared to base your lives on one set of ancient hallucinatory experiences but dismiss all the others? Why don’t you subscribe to all the books that claim divine providence? Doesn’t Pascal’s wager demand that you at least hedge your bets and embrace them all, just in case?

News just in: Neither Jesus nor Paul nor the disciples nor the gospel writers nor the Bible’s forgers nor the churches mentioned in it nor the early ‘Church Fathers’ ever read the Bible. They didn’t know of its existence, living 300 years before it was finally put together. They didn’t even envisage its creation, believing the world was going to end in their own lifetimes.

*The visions recorded in the New Testament include 10 separate ‘sightings’ of the risen Christ in the gospels and Acts; the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8 etc); Paul’s conversion alluded to in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45 and recounted, with contradictory details, three times in Acts; Paul’s vision – in or out of his body, he’s not sure – of ‘the Third Heaven’ (2 Corinthians 12.1-6); Stephen’s vision of Christ at the right hand of God (Acts 7.56); Peter’s ‘trance’ in which he sees a giant table cover (Acts 10.9-16); Paul and Barnabas’ visit from an angel (Acts 5.19-20); 5 other reports of visions in Acts (9.12; 16.9; 18.9-10; 22.17-20; 27.23-24) and the entire book of Revelation that relates the many hallucinations of a very disturbed mind. And then there are all the other sightings of angels and the dreams through which God is said to communicate with various nut-jobs people. I ask you – dreams!

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Now make up a story about it

Bible4

So there we have it. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection all derive from imagined sightings of him post-mortem. Call them hallucinations, visions or revelations, none of them were encounters with a real, revived physical being.

Except that’s not quite it, because it’s worse than that, Jim.

Most of our accounts of the resurrection appearances are fifty years or more too late. Paul’s is the only first hand account we have and even that is sketchy and recounted several years after it happened. For at least three of those years, Paul meditated on his seizure and interpreted it as a revelation from the Lord. Undoubtedly, others had similar experiences; the stories of the resurrected Christ came from somewhere and the resurrection seems to have been central to Christian faith from its earliest days. Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8 those he says have encountered the risen Christ:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul implies here that his own experience is the same as that of the others on his list; they too, then, had visions of the risen Christ within their imaginations. Significantly, Paul omits Mary Magdalene, the first to ‘see’ the post-mortem Jesus according to the later gospels, while some of the other encounters Paul claims to know about do not find their way into those accounts. Of those that do, we can be confident the details are wrong. They were most certainly not as they are described in the stories that eventually came to be written.

The earliest copies of Mark’s gospel famously have no resurrection appearances. The women discover the empty tomb, which Matthew and Luke later lift into their gospels, and, bizarrely, decide not to tell the disciples about it. By the time we get to last canonical gospel, written some thirty years down the line, its author embellishes Luke’s attempts to suggest that the risen Jesus has some physicality; he allows his old friends, especially Thomas, to poke around in his wounds and he eats fish. Nonetheless, as in the earlier gospels, the disciples all have trouble recognising him, even on a third occasion, and are afraid to ask him who he is (John 21.12). Did his followers simply experience, as John 14.15-20 and Matthew 18.20 seem to suggest, an intense sense of Jesus’ presence? This would make the reports of actual sightings evidence of later believers’ need for something more substantial than flashing lights and fuzzy feelings. Which is how, over time, surrounding detail came to be added.

In their specifics, the resurrection appearances in the gospels and Acts are stories that accrued around the visions and inner traumas experienced by Jesus’ friends and other zealots. As such they are fiction; the angels at the tomb – probably the empty tomb itself – the encounter on the road to Emmaus, the fish breakfast and the rest. Bart D. Ehrman demonstrates convincingly in Jesus Before The Gospels, that the oral tradition was not capable of transmitting the details of Jesus’ life and ministry accurately over a 40 year period (when Mark’s gospel was written). The same is true, perhaps moreso, of individuals’ idiosyncratic inner experiences. Over 50+ years, after which Matthew and Luke’s gospels were composed, reports of these visions would have been altered innumerable times by those relating them, ever onwards and outwards; details would inevitably have been changed, added, removed and invented in a protracted game of Chinese whispers. In all probability the gospel writers themselves introduced their own embellishments.

So then, from a small number of visions/hallucinations/feelings, via significantly altered accounts of these same subjective experiences, together with others that are pure invention, to the eventual recording of such stories 50 to 80 years later, this is the evolution of the fantasy that is the risen Christ.

Believing is Seeing

Fish

Have you noticed how the risen Jesus seems only to have appeared to those who were already primed to see him? Of course, the accounts of the resurrection are inconsistent, unreliable and constructed long after the supposed event, but just for now, let’s take them at face value. Jesus appears first, according to Matthew, Luke and John, to his female followers – maybe one on her own (in John), maybe two (Matthew), maybe several (Luke) – but to women who would be mourning him and would be longing to see him again. And lo and behold, they do! He’s not quite substantial and not quite recognisable – every bit the hallucination, in fact – but he appears.

Next he is said to have shown himself to the disciples – maybe one (Luke), maybe two (Luke again), maybe several (Matthew) – men who have been thrown into complete disarray by Jesus’ death but who believed in him and his mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, and were looking forward to ruling it with him. So naturally they see him in their midst. Never mind he walks through walls and disappears at will, just like an apparition – he appears! As Acts 1.3 puts it, ‘he presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs’.

Wait – ‘by many proofs’? What does that mean? That he had to prove he’d come back to life? Could they not see that for themselves? Couldn’t they recognise the man with whom they’d spent the last three years? Or if they could, weren’t they convinced he’d returned from the dead so that he felt he had to prove it? How? How did he prove it? With a death certificate? By letting them poke his holes? And this took forty days? Isn’t it more likely they were subject to group hysteria and some sort of hallucination (they’d had hallucinations before – see Matthew 17:1-9) and they then had to convince each other that what they’d experienced was really Jesus? No wonder it took forty days to concoct a ‘plausible’ story, to arrive at ‘the many proofs’ that Acts speaks of. Whichever it was, Jesus’ gullible old pals convinced themselves they’d seen him.

During these same forty days – though in his gospel Luke implies it’s a much shorter time (24.40-53) – Jesus fits in a guest appearance at a rock concert in front of 500 believers – believers, note. Not people who were converted as a result of this miraculous appearance, but people who were already part of the Jesus cult when they experienced this vision. Or so Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8. He wasn’t actually there, but he heard about it from a friend of a friend of a friend so it must be true.

And finally he appeared also to Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15.5). Not as a physical body but as a beam of light in Paul’s head. I’m not getting into how this was, as Paul himself admits, no more than an inner vision (he too is prone to hallucinations – see also Acts 16:9-10 and 2 Corinthians 12.1-7) because you can read about that here. Rather, I’m going to argue that Paul, arch-enemy to this point of all things to do with the Jesus cult, is just as primed for a sighting of the Lord as all those other people who think they saw him… next time.

to be continued.

My preciousss is mine (and mine alone)

bible3Christians have a monopoly on the Bible. No-one else should comment on it, criticise it or even quote from it. Or so Christians tell me. The reason for this, apparently, is that ‘it is absurd to contest the Bible when (you’re) missing the one main ingredient: Jesus’. Not so, of course; the Bible is there for anyone who wants to consider and ‘contest’ it. Granted one’s perspective will be coloured by how one regards it to begin with –

whether you approach it with a reasonable degree of objectivity or look at it through the myopia of faith;

whether you take what it says at face value or apply shifty exegesis to smooth out its many inconsistencies;

whether you acknowledge it was created over time by a succession of fallible men or assume it represents the accurately recorded words of God;

whether you regard it as beliefs of ancient tribesmen and religious fanatics or see it as the means of salvation and the ultimate guide to life.

It is only reasonable that those who take the first of each of these alternatives look to those who take the latter to see how closely they adhere to the demands the Bible makes of them. It’s reasonable because those who believe in its magical properties use it to tell the rest of us how wicked and/or lost we are and how much we need Jesus. If the Bible is the Word of God (as I’ve noted before, it doesn’t claim to be; it’s Christians who say it is), instructing believers on how to live their lives while spreading the gospel, it is not unreasonable for those of us on the receiving end of their ‘witness’ to take a look at how that works out. Not so well as it happens.

Now either this is the fault of the book – heaven forfend that it isn’t clear about what’s expected of God’s Chosen – or Christians themselves are to blame for failing to live as it expects. Unsurprisingly, it’s a combination of the two; a book of mixed messages in the hands of flawed human beings. When Christians refuse to acknowledge that the Bible is far from perfect they are faced with the challenge of making its impossible demands compatible with their own imperfections. They have a number of cop-out excuses that enable them to do this, several of which appear in the comments on this blog. I’ve discussed a number of them before, but here’s a quick summary:

Christians are not perfect and the Bible doesn’t say we should be (actually it does, in Matthew 5.48);

Others have no right to be critical of Christians when we’re doing our best;

You can’t use our own book against us when you don’t know Jesus (see above);

You’re a sinner so what do you know?;

You’re quoting out of context (and only Christians can do that);

You’re not applying the correct exegesis and/or hermeneutics (i.e. mine);

The Christians you’re criticising aren’t real Christians;

It is unfair to lump all Christians together.

Is it? Is it really unfair to lump all Christians together? Aren’t you all meant to be one body, the Body of Christ – you, the Pope, Westboro Baptists, the mega-churches and their celebrity pastors, Joyce Meyer, those who would stone gays, those who affirm gays, Franklin Graham, Alpha converts, abortion-clinic bombers, African witch-finders, Archbishop Sentamu, ‘Emergents’, those who belong to one of the thousands of other denominations and all your friends in your own little church? Who are you to say who’s saved and who isn’t? All Christians represent all other Christians, who represent Christ himself. The Bible says so in 1 Corinthians 12.12-26, Ephesians 4.14 -16 and elsewhere. Or did it get it wrong again?

Consensual text

BiblePastor Chris Linzey has taken me to task for quoting the Magic Book out of context. Interestingy, the latest post on Chris’s blog, written by his father, does just that, so it must be okay for Christians to do it even if no-one else can.

Let’s take a close look at a couple of verses, Matthew 19.4-6, that God’s Chosen like to quote out of context, entirely altering their meaning in the process (but that’s okay, because you know, Christians are doing it):

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ (Matthew 19.4-6; Jesus quoting Genesis 2.24 out of context).

As it stands, this passage seems to suggest that Jesus is endorsing marriage between one-man and one-woman (only) but pan out from the isolated section and this not what he’s talking about at all. He’s discussing divorce. Here’s the verse in context:

Some Pharisees came to (Jesus), and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matthew 19. 3-9)

What the one-man, one-woman verse can now be seen to be saying is that once a couple are married, they should stay together and not divorce; Jesus isn’t prescribing marriage at all. Add even more context and what we find following the lines about divorce is this:

His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.’ (Matthew 19.10-12)

In other words, Jesus doesn’t recommend marriage in any shape or form, not even between one man and one woman; his view is that it is better not marry at all. He goes further still: it is better to be completely sexless, as if without testicles, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges, bless him, that not everyone will be able to comply with this ‘teaching’ – who’d have thought it?

Zoom out further still and set this part of Matthew’s gospel against Luke 20.34-35 where Jesus really is talking about marriage:

He said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that [Kingdom] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

This time the message is that only those mired in the ways of the world marry, costing themselves a place in the coming Kingdom. Those in the know, however, avoid it and so guarantee their resurrection and transition to the new age. Whatever else it is (wackadoodle nonsense?) this is not a ringing endorsement of marriage. The verses from Matthew and Luke when taken together show clearly that not only did Jesus fail to endorse one-man, one-woman marriage, but that he disparaged the entire institution. He believed that when the Kingdom came to the Earth, marriage would be done away with altogether and advocated abandoning it in the interim as well. You wouldn’t know this though from the decontextualised use of Matthew 19.4-6.

We might ask here why it is that today’s Christians don’t comply with his directive. Why don’t they shun marriage as their Lord and Saviour says they should? Why do they regard his commands as optional? Why don’t they want to guarantee themselves a place in the coming Kingdom by vetoing marriage? Have they abandoned all hope of God’s Kingdom ever coming to the Earth? Shifty hermeneutics won’t help them here either, because Paul is of a similar opinion (1 Corinthians 7.8-9; 28-29). Evidently this is the kind of teaching Christians are free to discard, perhaps because they see it – unjustifiably – as specific to the first century, like the coming Kingdom itself.    

So, yes, context can be important, given the haphazard and disjointed fashion in which the Almighty chose to express himself. But it doesn’t always produce the result Christians might like. That’s where the sleight of hand known as ‘hermeneutic consistency’ comes in. We’ll try that out next time.

 

 

Some material in this post has appeared before; specifically here. I hope I didn’t take it out of context.

 

Pick and Mix

Kiss2If the Bible is the Word of God™ why, Christians, are you so selective in your use of it? I’ve previously considered how you dismiss much of what Jesus said as well as how you ignore the brutality of the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament isn’t immune from your selectivity. You disregard, for example, verses like these:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (1 Corinthians 14.34)

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Timothy 2.12)

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. (1 Corinthians 11.6)

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3.18)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. (Romans 13:1)

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. (1 Peter 3.3)

Greet one another with a holy kiss. (Romans 16.16)

Why don’t you obey these commands? You should if the Bible really is the Word of God, like you say it is. I’d suggest you don’t because like the rest of us, you derive your morals and values from the culture around you. As these change so too do your Christian beliefs; always much more slowly than the rest of society and with much resistance and tantruming, but eventually your views evolve and catch up with the rest of society. Provided you’re not part of the lunatic fringe (in which case I doubt you’d be reading this), you now generally accept values and practices that were unthinkable in the relatively recent past:

You don’t support the idea women should keep silent in church;
You accept them as preachers, ministers and bishops;
You don’t insist they keep their hair covered;
You don’t promote the idea they should be subservient to men.

You don’t see a man’s hair style as having anything to do with his faith or place among you.

You don’t endorse slavery.

You do oppose governments and authorities when you think they’re denying you your rights.

As for holy kisses… not so much.

You excuse yourself from adhering to the Biblical position on these matters by saying that here (and here alone) its teaching is culturally bound. These stipulations, and these only, you say, stem from views of women, conduct and practices at the time Paul and others were writing. As such, you claim, they are not binding today. You’re right of course, but then you insist that other of the Bible’s pronouncements, many of which, like its invective against gay people, are equally insupportable, are absolutes and binding for all time. How, I wonder, do you know which is which?

I’m confident that you don’t research the Graeco-Roman culture of the first and second centuries to determine where the New Testament’s writers are reflecting the mores of their day and where they’re providing eternal truths. No, what you do is decide arbitrarily, occasionally with the help of ‘experts’ who know no more about it than you do, which of the teaching you will accept and which you won’t.

It all comes down to a matter of taste, personal biases and what is compatible with your particular culture’s values. This is why you will, before long, come round to accepting gay people – unless you live in a part of the world that still reviles homosexuality, in which case your views will continue to reflect that of your culture. You can then go on claiming, for a little while longer, that your prejudice is derived from the scripture.

But let’s have no more insistence that the Bible is the Word of God offering eternal values and absolute standards. You don’t believe it yourself; if you did, you would apply all New Testament values and standards consistently and completely in your own life and within your church. You don’t. To paraphrase Paul Simon, you believe what you want to believe and disregard the rest.

It’s Baby Jesus time again

Nativity2It’s that time of year again, when we’re expected to worship the baby Jesus and thank God for sending him. I do usually go to a church carol service with friends and sing along for nostalgic reasons, while marvelling at folk’s willingness to believe the fairy story. Plus, there’s always a drink or two afterwards to look forward to.

What would Jesus have made of it? The stories of his miraculous birth have been tacked on to the beginning of two of the gospels but even in Matthew and Luke there is no indication that he was aware of them. Neither he nor his mother mention them when it looks like aspersions are being cast on his legitimacy (eg: Mark 6.3; John 8.41). You’d think one or other would have done so as sure-fire proof that he was an emissary from God. In fact, apart from the two conflicting accounts in Matthew and Luke there are no other mentions of his spectacular nativity in the Bible; Paul, writing closest to Jesus’ lifetime, doesn’t refer to it even when he’s arguing in 1 Corinthians 15.42-52 that Jesus came from Heaven.

How do we account for this? The obvious answer is that the nativity narratives are much later inventions. We know they were not included in Matthew and Luke’s shared source material because the two are significantly different (as I discuss here). However, by the time these gospels were being compiled, in the 80s and 90s, such stories had begun to circulate – then as now, people liked origin stories for their super-heroes – and two such tales were incorporated into their accounts. The birth stories are invention, heavy with symbolism and designed to show that Jesus was not illegitimate but spawned by God in a supposed fulfilment of prophecy.

While the adult Jesus was a egotist who thought he was going to the end the system in which he lived (Matthew 24.34-35) and then rule the world with his mates (Matthew 19.28), he didn’t require that his followers worship him. It’s true that, like any other cult leader, he accepted others’ adulation when it was offered, especially when it was offered by women; one anoints him with expensive perfume in John 12.13, while another Mary – they were evidently short of female names back then – fawns over him in Luke 10.41-42. However, he doesn’t make it part of his mission to demand the worship of others. When early Christians started to think of Jesus as a supernatural-being worthy of adulation, they devised statements about how marvellous he was (Colossians 1.15-20 may be one such) but worshipping him through song does not appear to have been part of their agenda.

Modern Christians’ use of hymns and songs to tell Jesus how much they love him is, then, alien to the faith as it was originally practised, and to Jesus himself. The carols that’ll be sung this Christmas have no equivalent in Jesus’ life nor in that of his earliest followers. Even if he were hanging around in Heaven somewhere, which of course he isn’t, the last thing he’d want to be subjected to would be some badly sung Victorian carols telling him what a great guy he is. He was in no doubt about that when he was alive.